Like a wary turtle emerging from his shell, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker is slowly sticking his neck out into the swamp of 2020′s ugly politics. The Republican governor endorsed Representative Richie Neal in his Democratic primary this summer, and a political action committee aligned with the governor endorsed a slew of local Democrats and Republicans in the primaries. On Friday, he came to the aid of Susan Collins in the general election, appearing in a TV ad for the embattled Republican US senator from Maine.
The governor certainly has every right to endorse whomever he chooses. But the more he gets involved in down-ballot races, including even ones outside of Massachusetts, the more conspicuous his silence in that other race on the ballot becomes. Yes, that would be the presidential race, in which the governor remains as shell-bound as ever, yet to divulge his plans.
There’s no question that Baker has opposed, and occasionally even snapped at, President Trump, who has taken a wrecking ball to Baker’s ideal of well-managed government. But as in 2016, he has not taken the plunge of endorsing Trump’s opponent, Joe Biden. There is a pragmatic case for remaining silent: Massachusetts relies on the federal government in various ways, and will for at least the next few months, so why antagonize a thin-skinned and demonstrably vindictive president like Trump? And what difference would it make, considering that Massachusetts is all but certain to back Biden anyway?
But there’s an argument to be made for influencing Republicans in Maine — into whose elections Baker now apparently has no problem wading, and for whom he seems to believe his endorsement is meaningful. The state divides its electoral votes by congressional district, and Trump won one of them in 2016. But that’s not the only way in which Baker’s voice could be meaningful in presidential politics. There’s also New Hampshire, one of the few places in which Baker’s brand of centrist New England Republicanism still has a toehold, and which Trump nearly won in 2016. Nationally, there are still a smattering of old-style Republicans and groups like the Lincoln Project, who are attempting to create a “permission structure” for those voters to back Biden instead. The support of a respectable, cloth-coat GOP governor would sure help.
Of course, endorsing Biden would certainly make life more difficult for Baker if he sought a third term on the GOP line. But the fact that Baker does have something to lose politically is also what would make his voice much more meaningful than those of former Republican officeholders who have only rediscovered their vertebrae after leaving office.
Ever since Trump’s election, Baker has faced constant calls to join protests, endorse Democrats, and denounce the president in ever-stronger terms. The governor, though, has preferred to bask in the warmth of his sky-high approval ratings. When it looked like a principled desire to avoid getting dragged into national politics, it was a lot easier to defend Baker’s choice to stay on the sidelines. Now that Baker has shown he has no compunctions about endorsing Democrats or candidates outside Massachusetts, his silence on the presidential election is getting louder and louder. The governor has shown he represents a better version of the Republican party than Donald Trump. Now would be the time for him to issue an endorsement that solidifies it and points to a better path for both his party and country.
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